This has been a difficult month for Prime Minister Stephen Harper in terms of Crown-First Nations relations. Harper seemed too busy picking fights with Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Beverley McLachlin and defending another "dodgy" Senate appointment, to notice that Canada's already brittle relationship with First Nations was crumbling.
In the last few weeks, Harper refused to conduct an inquiry into murdered and missing women or allow the RCMP to release its own investigation until "reviewed" by Canada. The auditor general's recent report criticizes Canada for lack of transparency and adequate funding in First Nation policing, an all too familiar conclusion in most, if not all previous reports, which highlighted chronic underfunding in other areas like housing, water, and education. Even the international community is taking notice of Canada's abrupt governance personality change under Harper. While the United Nations has been consistently critical of Canada's treatment of indigenous peoples, the Bertelsmann Foundation is the latest to note that Canada's record on governance has declined under Harper, especially when it comes to indigenous peoples.
It was, therefore, no surprise when the Harper government introduced Bill C-33 First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act on April 10, 2014. Contrary to the joint Atleo-Harper announcement on Feb. 7, 2014 which promised increased funding for First Nation education; First Nation control over education; and support for First Nation languages and cultures—this legislation did just the opposite. Bill C-33 increased ministerial control over education in very paternalistic ways (including co-managers and third-party managers of education); it did not guarantee specific levels of funding; and English and French were made the languages of instruction.
The opposition to this bill was immediate and widespread across various demographics, from First Nation chiefs, citizens, educators, lawyers, and academics and served as the final straw in the Atleo-Harper relationship. Harper had been running roughshod over First Nations and their rights since he was first elected, but this time Harper went too far and lost his primary ally -- Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo who recently resigned. Although most will see this bill as the primary reason for Atleo's resignation, the widespread calls for his impeachment were a long time in the making.
The Joint Action Plan between Atleo and Harper announced June 9, 2011, was the first sign that Atleo was headed down the wrong path. The plan promised a National Panel on Education instead of much-needed funding to address the crisis in education. Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec First Nations pulled out of the National Panel in protest.
Atleo stood by Harper's side during the Crown-First Nation Gathering on January 24, 2012, where Harper told First Nations his plan to enact legislation and unilaterally change the treaty relationship and rules in education. When Atleo did not heed warnings from First Nations leaders about Harper's assimilatory agenda, many First Nation leaders started to pull away from the AFN.
Atleo was re-elected as national chief in July 2012 and continued to stand by Harper's side as he introduced more paternalistic legislation, more funding cuts to First Nation organizations, and allowed the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women to go unchecked. As a result, the people rose and Idle No More was born in late fall of 2012. Even with such mass opposition to Harper's agenda, Atleo stood by Canada's side.
Seeing little hope for change, Chief Theresa Spence went on her hunger strike and the people ramped up their Idle No More rallies and protests. Atleo did not stand with the people. The chiefs reacted by gathering for a week in Ottawa and told Atleo not to meet with Harper on Jan. 11, 2013. Atleo killed our leverage and unity by sneaking in the back way to meet with Harper and then had a "ceremonial meeting" with the GG in the evening.
The chiefs reacted with letters calling for Atleo's resignation and withdrawing from the AFN. The Treaty First Nations started conducting their own gatherings to strategize on how best to protect their rights. Yet, Atleo continued to meet in secret with Harper. The surprise joint Atleo-Harper announcement on February 7, 2014 was quickly followed by the introduction of Bill C-33 and was the final nail in the coffin for both Atleo and Harper. The widespread calls for Atleo's impeachment and the rallies organized in Ottawa against Bill C-33 ultimately led to Atleo's resignation and Harper's decision to put the bill "on hold."
First Nations are generally very patient. Given the many horrific experiences of First Nations peoples at the hands of the federal government from scalping bounties, small pox blankets, forced sterilizations of indigenous women, torture, abuse and deaths of children in residential schools, and medical experimentation on First Nation peoples—it is a testament to our peaceful nature that we continue to sit at the table with Canada in hopes of improving the relationship.
But Harper has set Crown-First Nations relations back decades. We are now back where First Nation national political organizing started: the 1969 White Paper and the federal goal to assimilate Indians. The continued failure by Canada to address our just concerns has led to numerous clashes in the meeting rooms, in the courts, and on the ground and Atleo's resignation hurt Harper in a big way. Without Atleo, Harper's bill is indefensible. This is the reason for the rare step by Harper to put the bill on hold pending "clarification from AFN" on their position.
The AFN executive met this past Monday and Tuesday and decided not to appoint an interim national chief, but instead appointed Quebec Regional Chief Ghislain Picard as spokesperson until the election is held. They offered no position on Bill C-33. Canada must wait for its answer. But time is exactly what is needed on all sides. Harper's assimilation agenda has just experienced a head-on collision with indigenous resistance and our refusal to watch our children's futures assimilate into oblivion. Harper and the AFN both need to seriously consider their next steps.
Canada should withdraw this bill and address the current crisis in education by adjusting First Nation funding to adequate levels, with additional funds to rebuild capacity and training, and address run-down schools and infrastructure. Then it should begin the necessary step of meeting with First Nations to decide how to go forward on the larger governance and rights issues—which will be up to First Nations to decide for themselves. Most of all, Canada has some relationship building to do. It has to end the negative propaganda against First Nations, stop trying to impose federally designed solutions, and get down to the hard work of addressing the injustices.
The AFN, for its part, has to take a long, hard look at itself from a critical lens if it has any hope of regaining credibility. Simply holding an election for a different national chief will not be enough -- especially if any of the current AFN executive run in the election. With a couple of exceptions, the regional chiefs were part of the Atleo-Harper deal-making process throughout Atleo's two terms. They could have stopped the Joint Action Plan, the Atleo-Harper meeting, the National Panel on Education, and even this legislation. These regional chiefs still have to be held accountable to the leaders and citizens in their own regions for their actions.
The coming weeks and months will determine in what direction the relationship between Canada and First Nations turns, but one thing is for certain: First Nations will never allow Canada to repeat the harms suffered by the residential school policy again. Our resistance to Bill C-33 is testament to that.
This article originally appeared in The Hill Times. It is reprinted here with permission.
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